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Military struggles with rise in sexual-assault complaints 

"I'm not convinced it's happening more, I think it's reported more."

Joyce Wagner

Photo by Heather Mull

Joyce Wagner

The night before Joyce Wagner left Iraq to return stateside, she sat with a fellow Marine and discussed what life would be like when he came home.

The pair had been talking outside of her tent, when the male soldier began trying to kiss and touch her. She resisted. But because Wagner had previously pursued a sexual-harassment claim against another soldier, she says, "I felt like everybody was kind of watching my behavior." So she moved the conversation into the tent — where she says the Marine sexually assaulted her.

Wagner, of Stanton Heights, never filed a report. She redeployed five months later, and because her tours were back-to-back, "I never had time to deal with it."

The incident took place in 2004, at a time when concern was growing over sexual assaults in the ranks. An investigation at the United States Air Force Academy the previous year, for example, revealed nearly 20 percent of female cadets claimed to have been sexually assaulted. Spurred by that report, the military created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) and established two methods of reporting — unrestricted, which would touch off a military criminal investigation, and restricted, which wouldn't. In both cases, the victim can speak with counselors and victims' advocates.

Women's advocates, military-justice experts and female veterans say the military's response has had mixed results.

"It's a good thing that ... military commanders take it seriously. It helps and it does affect the way people think about their relationships and interactions," says Elizabeth Hillman, a professor of law at University of California-Hastings and president of the National Institute for Military Justice. "On the other hand, that also creates a fear of getting too close to women and makes women toxic in some way."

Since 1973, the number of active-duty enlisted women has increased from 42,000 to 167,000, according to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center. Men too can suffer from military sexual trauma — "MST" in military jargon — but 88 percent of those reporting MST last year were women, according to the Department of Defense's annual report on sexual assault in the military. In 2011, 3,192 sexual assaults were reported — a 47 percent increase since 2004.

"I'm not convinced it's happening more, I think it's reported more," says Michele Papakie, an associate journalism professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.

Papakie embedded with an Army unit in Afghanistan and served as its SAPRO coordinator.

Overall, she says, "They gave it the attention it needed. The generals were very responsive and supported it." But the military, she says, didn't do enough prevention or warn male or female soldiers about the importance of staying out of potentially compromising situations in the first place. "It was all reactive. ... They weren't supposed to be having sex and things like that, but it was still happening."

Reporting assaults while on active duty during wartime is difficult: Victims "are away from their support system and you're stuck with these people. You have to work with them," Papakie says.

But some critics say the reporting processes just made things worse

SAPRO "in concept, was a very good idea," says Meagan Temple, a Downtown attorney and Air Force veteran who served in the Judge Advocate General's Corps and worked on such cases. But "it did a disservice to victims because they were just not prepared for the legal process and how difficult it is." Counseling records can be made public, she notes. And because sexual assaults often take place among acquaintances, the burden of proof to disprove consent "is very, very difficult."

Advocates, meanwhile, say it is critical that there are resources in place to deal with — and ultimately prevent — assault, so the victim can heal.

"It is such a great betrayal to be sexually assaulted," says Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and a member of two Department of Defense task forces on sexual assault. "Then if the first response isn't appropriate and nurturing, [the trauma] continues."

Wagner, for one, was among the first women to serve in her unit, and says her sexual assault took place amid a broader culture of treatment toward women. Soldiers repeatedly made passes at her. And if soldiers ever discussed rumors of an assault, Wagner says, the incident was typically "followed with some kind of story about how the person wasn't actually raped."

"There was always a boys-being-boys attitude," Wagner says. "It was completely ingrained."

Observers note that each branch of the military is different and that experiences vary based on branch, duty, rank and other factors. Temple says she had a positive experience in the Air Force: "It's considerably much harder to be a female attorney in the civilian world than in the military."

In Wagner's case, she says she didn't deal with her MST until years later when studying at Chatham University. Two years ago, she filed a claim with the Veteran's Benefit Administration for post-traumatic stress, from combat — her avionics-support unit came under frequent mortar fire — and MST. Her case is still pending.

"There are going to be so many people coming back with these problems," she says. "I feel like this kind of stuff is just beginning."

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